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Buzzards Bay: Before and Beyond Bouchard
By Dr. Joseph Costa, Executive Director, Buzzards Bay Project
The scenic coastline of Buzzards Bay includes sandy beaches, productive shellfish beds, and valuable wetlands and habitat, all of which justified its designation as an Estuary of National Significance in 1985. Another important feature—the Cape Cod Canal—connects the upper end of Buzzards Bay to Massachusetts Bay, ensuring that this area is an important part of the East Coast coastal and inland waterways system. However, having commercial traffic lanes has its risks, and Buzzards Bay was the site of a number of notable oil spills in the 1960s and 1970s. It therefore surprised few that oil pollution prevention was one of the 11 priority action plans identified in the Buzzards Bay Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP), developed by the Buzzards Bay Project (BBP) in 1991. This concern was reasonable, not only because of past spills, but because cumulative inputs of oil from stormwater, industrial, and wastewater systems contributed more oil to Buzzards Bay than transportation accidents.
For the past decade, the BBP has worked with municipalities to improve preparedness for both small and large spills of oil. This training and focus paid off when on April 27, 2003, the oil tank barge Bouchard 120 struck bottom while entering Buzzards Bay, releasing an estimated 98,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil.
Local Responders First
When working with the BBP to develop the Oil Pollution Action Plan for the Buzzards Bay CCMP, area harbormasters, shellfish wardens, and fire departments knew from experience that they were the first responders. Whether there was a small fueling spill in a harbor, or a large accident offshore, they understood it might be many hours before either the U.S. Coast Guard or the state-hired Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) contractors would arrive on scene. Consequently, their goal was to increase municipal preparation, training, and coordination in dealing with oil spills of all sizes.
In 1993, each municipality selected a representative to tackle the oil spill problem. They called themselves the Buzzards Bay Oil Spill Coordinators. The Buzzards Bay Action Committee, a municipal official organization, coordinated the effort and pushed the group forward. In 1994, they signed an oil spill mutual aid agreement pledging staff and resources to assist each other in the event of an oil spill. Between 1990 and 2001, the BBP contributed $65,000 to Buzzards Bay municipalities for oil spill boom and containment equipment, and the towns spent twice that amount of their own money. Harbormasters and shellfish wardens took Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (or "HAZWOPER") courses to meet federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration requirements so they could work alongside fire department staff. The BBP paid for municipal oil spill training at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and the towns began annual training drills with the local U.S. Coast Guard station. In 2001, the oil spill coordinators even produced a Buzzards Bay Oil Spill Response Plan that listed trained municipal responders, their emergency numbers, sensitive area maps, and an inventory of each town's equipment.
The April 2003 Oil Spill and the Municipal Response
On the morning after Bouchard 120 struck bottom, Buzzards Bay Oil Spill Coordinators were put to the test. Except for the volume of oil spilled (less than 2.5 percent of the total on board), in many ways the Bouchard 120 spill represented a worst-case scenario. No. 6 fuel is particularly harmful to birds, conspicuous when washed on shore, and difficult to clean from surfaces. The vessel traveled 15 miles after the accident, creating a 10-mile long slick. In the ensuing days, unsettled weather, choppy seas, and ever-changing winds brought fragments of the slick to every municipality around Buzzards Bay, with new oil landing ashore each day for more than a week.
In the first 24 hours, the U.S. Coast Guard managed the damaged vessel, surveyed Buzzards Bay by helicopter and boat, and set up the Incident Command Center. At the same time, many local Oil Spill Coordinators set up their own town Command Centers. Municipal harbormasters began tracking the slick in boats and calling in coordinates, and town personnel began deploying boom to prevent oil from reaching sensitive areas. These local officials also began helping the Command Center responders. All around the bay, towns pressed harbormasters and fire departments and their vessels into service. They also helped many of the out-of-state contractors find launch areas and staging—no small feat given Buzzards Bay's complex coastline, numerous back roads, and unfamiliar Wampanoag Native American place names.
For municipal officials, the first 48 hours after the spill were frustrating because they felt communications between local officials and the state and federal responders were inadequate, and that local resources, knowledge, and expertise were not well integrated into the emergency response. In one instance, emergency response contractors placed boom under a causeway to capture an arriving slick, but no skimming boat was on scene. Local oil spill responders recognized that high tidal currents would soon push the oil past the boom into the embayment. Fire Chiefs on scene insisted that another boom be put in front of the advancing slick to deflect the oil to shore, where it could be captured. (Interestingly, this scenario precisely matched one of their training exercises.) Following a heated debate, the contractors agreed to deploy the deflection boom, and the shoreline cleanup crews collected the oil on shore.
After several days, the U.S. Coast Guard and Command Center were able to resolve these communication problems with local officials. However, discussions continue on how to best integrate local government into the critically important first few days of a major oil spill.
The Role of the Buzzards Bay Project
State and federal agencies employ an "Incident Command System" approach for managing disasters, which integrates the efforts of many organizations, including municipal officials. In the Bouchard 120 spill, a "Unified Command" was established composed of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the contractors for the Responsible Party. The Bouchard 120 Command Center was responsible for all aspects of spill response, clean up, and assessment. What possible role could a National Estuary Program like BBP play in an oil spill?
The answer became apparent hours after the spill when the Buzzards Bay Project phone lines became tied with calls from municipal officials, reporters, and area residents. Information—everyone wanted information, ranging from basic statistics about the physical features of Buzzards Bay, to boat traffic through the canal, to the number of commercial shellfisherman using the bays, to maps and aerial photographs. Much of this information was detailed in the CCMP, and this document and other detailed materials were available on the BBP website. As a technical assistance and planning agency, BBP also has extensive expertise in map creation and webpage management.
Because the Command Center was focused on responding to the spill, they could not answer the myriad of question from residents, reporters, and municipal officials, and the slow release or lack of certain information contributed to some inaccurate or misleading newspaper articles. To address the demand for information, we at the BBP began updating our website several times a day with new information, oil landing maps, and statistics about the spill and the Command Center response. We were in communication with municipal officials and agency personnel, and because the BBP could attend Command Center briefings not open to the public, were able to provide details and insights on cleanup activities not available elsewhere. The information was presented in the simplest factual terms without editorializing, and lead news agencies were visiting the BBP website for broadcast and print report updates.
During the early days of the spill, we saw a 20-fold increase in website visits, with more than a hundred thousand visitors coming to our website in the months following the spill. These efforts won praise for the BBP, both from state and federal agencies, and residents—many sending emails with their thanks. Weeks into the spill, it was well recognized that the BBP website was effectively communicating the excellent work of the Bouchard 120 Command Post.
Lessons Learned, Lessons Transferred
Even for estuaries with major shipping lanes, disasters like Bouchard are so rare they are measured in decades. Still, there are lessons to be learned and transferred. First, there is value in having trained local officials with adequate containment and absorbent materials on hand. Small spills of 10 to 100 gallons are common, and local officials can minimize the spread of pollution before state and federal agencies, or their contractors, respond. For larger spills, mutual aid agreements, and training exercises involving several municipalities can provide invaluable experience.
Equally important for Buzzards Bay was an outgrowth of this training program—a series of new initiatives by municipalities to reduce hydrocarbon release from boats and marinas. With a grant from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) in 1997, the Buzzards Bay Action Committee purchased oil absorbing "bilge socks" to hand out to every recreational boat with a bilge in Buzzards Bay. The Action Committee also began looking at fueling regulations to determine what steps can be made to reduce fueling accidents, another common source of spilled hydrocarbons. Many towns are now switching to 4-stroke engines to reduce hydrocarbons in another CZM-funded initiative.
Finally, one of the most significant of the BBP's roles is to provide scientific and technical information to the public and to local government. With all that we did during and before the Bouchard oil spill, from printing maps and aerial photographs for shoreline cleanup assessment teams to assisting in wildlife rescue efforts, for many, the dissemination of information on our website became our most memorable contribution. However, our most lasting contributions will be our detailed analysis of the volume of oil spilled (which resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard rejecting lower estimates), our assistance in quantifying and characterizing environmental impacts, and our efforts to help local officials prepare for future spills.